A sharp portrait of two women who struggled to shape their lives as their world changed.
Poet Moore (The Bishop’s Daughter, 2008, etc.), who has written perceptive, revelatory biographies of her father, Bishop Paul Moore, and maternal grandmother, painter Margarett Sargent, now focuses her attention on her mother, Jenny McKean (1923-1973). Based in part on an unfinished memoir that Jenny bequeathed to her, Moore also draws on letters, scrapbooks, and abundant interviews with family, Jenny’s many friends, and lovers to create a sensitive portrait of a complex, contradictory woman. Born into great wealth, Jenny greatly enjoyed the “dinners and dances” of her debutante year, at the same time feeling stimulated by what she was learning at Vassar: comparative anthropology, for example, where, for the first time, she studied race, “an issue that would gather force and meaning for her and inform her moral and political thinking for the rest of her life.” So did her marriage to Paul, also born into wealth, who had decided to become a priest. For both, the church offered a sense of meaning and mission. Jenny defied “the limitations of her role as a clergy wife,” becoming an active partner in the couple’s work in the slums of Jersey City, where they lived in near poverty and, influenced by the Christian radical Dorothy Day, threw themselves “into a life of service, away from the spiritual emptiness and lack of community in which they had grown up.” Honor, the oldest of their nine children, competed for her mother’s attention not only with her siblings, but also with her mother’s consuming social and political engagement; as she grew up, Jenny desired to extricate herself from her roles as wife and mother and forge a new identity. By 1970, with women’s liberation bursting into American culture, both the author and her mother “began to stumble toward new terms of engagement—as free women.” For each of them, the stumbling exposed emotional wounds, and for Moore, the discovery of her mother’s gift to her: “a kind of force within that never allows me to stay still.”
A deeply insightful, empathetic family history.